24 March 2010

Doctor Visits


After an overnight visit in the private hospital due to a nasty spell of food poisoning I went to the second homestay of our Urban unit in the landfill. Ignoring the warning of my parents and ajaans, I approached the trip with apprehension. I had a small shopping bag full of medicine, and I couldn’t really eat anything substantial without feeling nauseous.

On the second night of the homestay as I was finishing my antibiotic, Amy, my roommate for the trip who happens to be fluent in Thai, explained that I had been hospitalized days earlier to our Meh (homestay mother). I showed her what I thought was a hefty share of drugs. She remarked, “You can’t beat me,” and pulled out a much larger, heavier bag of pills.

Meh told us that she suffers from a rare liver disease that she’s had for most of her life. The medicine needed to treat the disease costs 6,000 Bt a month and the booster shot needed once a year costs 50,000 Bt. Because the disease is rare and expensive to treat, it is not covered under Thailand’s 30Bt (a little less than one US dollar) per visit health plan that has delivered affordable healthcare to so many. She cannot afford such high prices for treatment so she must take vitamin supplements instead, which she admits do very little. Meh has 3 children, 2 of whom have an early form of the disease, and a husband. She works 7 days a week scavenging in the landfill for 11 hours a day. She visited the doctor 2 weeks before we stayed with her and he informed her she would die in 5 years if she doesn’t treat the disease.

Our 3 pairs of eyes welled up with tears as we talked about her situation. Though I couldn’t understand most of her words, her fear was audible in her voice. I resisted the urge to cry on the spot because I didn’t feel as if I had the right; I received treatment in the nicest hospital in Khon Kaen for a stomach bug without concern for payment. My parent’s insurance plan covers our fancy treatment and overnight stays.

I suppose the most striking element of the conversation was that there is a treatment for Meh’s disease that could mitigate most of her symptoms and allow her to lead a normal life. The problem is not one of biology; it is political and economic. Meh will die in 5 years because she cannot afford the cost of living.

I have had many debates about the economic feasibility of universal health care state-side long before coming to Thailand. Though I’ve never really wavered on my position that health care is a human right, it was not until that moment that I really understood the magnitude of that concept. If we allow health to be treated as a commodity, meaning some may purchase and others can’t afford, then the economic arguments against universal coverage will continue to hold strong. I didn’t deserve treatment days before because of my parent’s job, but because I was a sick human being and the technology existed to make me well. The logic breaks down if framed in any other way. Meh is a person therefore she deserves treatment.

On an emotional level, I think the situation was even more difficult. I realize that human rights are often eclipsed by economics. Those who work in the informal sector face these challenges every day across the world, especially in my home country. Meh’s experience is not uncommon. It troubles me further knowing the amount she works and the labor conditions she experiences. What is she to do in order to fight? When one works 11 hours a day there is no time to find other means to pay one’s medical bills. There is not time to lobby to expand healthcare coverage. Unfortunately, I left the homestay feeling as if my Meh’s life was to be determined by her circumstances.

As students we are asked to develop collaborative projects with these communities that enhance our learning process and benefit the community’s efforts. The issues faced by the landfill are complex and multidimensional. When I reflect on my visit, the issue of an unjust health care system comes to mind, among the other challenges they face. I cannot even understand the intricacies of my own system and the idea of understanding the Thai health care system is daunting. It is difficult as a student not to feel overwhelmed by these complexities. I think possessing an unwavering moral vision is the easy part. The challenge is to place that vision of human rights into policy terms.

Becky Goncharoff
Transylvania University

Where We Eat Like Kings


My eyes fluttered to attention when I heard “We’re here to help you”. Something had gone horribly awry. At the time, our small group of American college students studying abroad had been embedded in an exchange with one of the many slum communities of the city of Khon Kaen in northeastern Thailand. In a good-willed effort to make our exchange with the slum community a reciprocal one, and driven by her own sense of compassion, a member of our contingency told our hosts that part of the reason we were there was to help them. Upon hearing her words, the atmosphere immediately transitioned from that of an educational conference between two parties seeking to understand one another to a melee-like plea for help. And not just any help. Financial help. The floodgates opened and all hope was lost.

Our community desperately needs funding for education. We get nothing from the government. Are you doing anything to help us?

Well, I’m sure there are American non-profit organizations who would be interested in helping you. We can look into it.

Only the wealthiest Thais could afford to study abroad. How much did it cost you to study abroad in Thailand?

Err, well, even we Americans had to take out loans and obtain scholarships to afford the trip here. Not all Americans are rich.

How much does your tuition cost?

(Eyes dart across the room at one another, no one willing to state a numerical value.)

We’re not sure. It depends. A lot of it is covered by scholarships.

(No one had the heart to tell them that one year’s worth of tuition was greater in value than all 150 of their community’s houses combined.)

Chances are if you are reading this right now (my beloved target audience), you are rich. And not just rich: you are unbelievably wealthy. Most of us hate characterizing our assets this way, let alone recognize it to begin with. I haven’t thought of myself as absurdly rich by any means of the imagination. With my father still unemployed as a result of a floundering economy and our family quickly eating away at what limited savings we had to begin with, sometimes it seems my family is surrendering everything we’ve attained just to get by. This is a common story in the United States. Yet on an international scale, all of us—you and I—are the cream of the crop. We are the elites who have enjoyed unprecedented wealth and opportunities while over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day. I do not mean to come off as holier-than-thou and provoke defensiveness. I’m not trying to spurn you or make you roll your eyes. I’m not even trying to repeat what you may perceive to be obvious. Hopefully we can both simply agree that, relative to others on a global scale, we have enjoyed far more privileges in our lives. With this in mind, bear with me for just one more moment. Please, get comfortable. Grab a soda if you’d like.

So where does this disparity in wealth come from? Is it merely because we have so much money and they have so little? Although Thais generally make much less income than Americans do in relation to currency values (the U.S. dollar versus the Thai baht), Thais generally pay for a much lower cost of living than those in the United States. It would initially appear that wealth is relative and that everything balances out; Americans abroad often enjoy citing (albeit usually in desperation) that our enormous costs back home justify our superior incomes. Yet there is a fundamental reason why so many Americans are able to study abroad and so few Thais can afford to do the same. There is a reason why my iPod alone is worth roughly a third of the yearly income of a scavenger at the Khon Kaen landfill (about 48 thousand baht). That reason lies with the exchange rate.

Do you know what determines the currency exchange rate between countries? If you fully understand the reasons behind the exchange rate, I truly envy you. I have studied some of the numerous determining factors behind exchange rates and in conclusion I have only been able to grasp just enough information so as to further infuriate Thais when I desperately try to explain it to them. While currency exchange rates should be determined (at least from a na├»ve ethical standpoint) by purchasing power alone—e.g. hypothetically, if you can purchase a sack of rice in the United States for 5 dollars and that same sack of rice in Thailand costs 50 baht, then 1 dollar should equal 10 baht—this obviously is not the reality. Essentially, one of the most important determining factors is the international market demand for a given currency. The more demand there is for a country’s goods and services, the greater demand there is for that country’s currency, hence the value of that particular currency rises relative to other currencies.

Total wealth also plays a significant role. To use a widely cited example, let’s imagine that 1 U.S. dollar is equal to 1 Thai baht. Now let's say that the Americans own $100 and the Thais own 100 baht. If America buys $5 worth of product from Thailand, America would have $95 and Thailand would have 105 baht. Suddenly Thailand becomes wealthier. In theory Thailand is approximately 10% wealthier now. (100/95x105=10.52%) So suddenly $1 would be worth around 1 baht and 10 sarang (there are 100 sarang in 1 baht). This is the principle of how trade surpluses and deficits along with total wealth help determine the exchange rate. There are several other factors—including interest rates, inflation, political conditions and market psychology—that all factor in as well (many governments intentionally undervalue their currency to promote greater spending by foreign investors and tourists who get more bang for their buck, as described shortly). The foreign exchange market, considering all of the above, then arbitrarily produces a number which dictates everything. It tells us that the current currency exchange rate hovers around 33 baht to the U.S. dollar. The foreign exchange market allows me to purchase bottled water for less than 22 cents a bottle. The foreign exchange market allows me to buy a full meal of fried rice with chicken for only 46 cents. It allows me to purchase a fine button-down shirt for 3 dollars and 10 cents. To see an American-produced movie in the theatre on opening day for $3.71. To be treated to an hour long full-body Thai massage by a professional licensed masseuse for $6.19. To obtain a 6-month gym membership to a state-of-the-art gym for $21.66. To be vaccinated for Japanese encephalitis for $74.09 (as compared to $450 at some health clinics in the United States). The list goes on and on.

Do the reasons above adequately explain why the currency exchange rate is tilted immensely in favor of American consumers versus Thai consumers? Absolutely. Does it make it fair? Not even close. While it is far easier to explain ‘the system’ on the macroeconomic scale, it is far more difficult to explain it to those who are forced to scavenge in a landfill for the valuable recyclables I just threw out. Yet I am almost tired of sugar coating the issue. I am tired of dancing around questions concerning how much my airplane ticket cost for fear they would convert the price into baht and marvel in shock at my wealth. The system is there and we all live under it: why be afraid to tell them the perverted truth? Why consciously keep others ignorant? Perhaps it is because in telling the truth we are contradicting our own personal modesty and our own embarrassment towards our undeserved privileged. It does not make it any easier to explain to a Thai living in the slums that although they have put in more work and endured more suffering and hardship into making a living than I will ever know, I will always be richer. I will always be fatter. I will always enjoy a higher standard of living filled with luxuries and opportunities that they will never even know existed. The exchange rate may be very well founded, but it is still a moral travesty. It is a travesty which maintains that despite your feats, triumphs and hardships, despite all your labor, hard work, civility and perseverance, your cumulative yearly income will be but a fraction of what I spend on luxuries. And for that reason you are worth less than my golden rings.

Alex Binder
University of Colorado at Boulder

Moo-baan (village)


The Oxford American Dictionary defines the word slum as “a squalid and overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people”. This definition describes my own image of slums quite accurately. Or at least it did, before I spent a few days living in Nong Waeng, a slum community in Khon Kaen. Beforehand, I envisioned a maze of muddy, narrow alleys, with shacks crammed together and throngs of people barely scraping by.

With these preconceptions in mind, I was surprised upon arriving in Nong Waeng to find a relatively small group of modest homes stretched out beside the railroad tracks. One of the main streets was recently paved, and the others, while rutted and dusty, were wide enough for cars to pass. In the area where I stayed, houses occupied only one side of the street; on the other side was an open, grassy area where cows grazed and kids played. Flowers filled pots on doorsteps and bougainvillea grew wild over gates and roofs. And while most of the people living in Nong Waeng would be categorized as “low-income”, even “very poor”, this description falls short for me. Poor in monetary resources, sure, but rich in many other things. Rich in community, rich in family, rich in love. Though there are certainly many difficult issues in Nong Waeng, it is not the place of despair I had envisioned when I thought of the word slum.

Realizing that the label I had pinned on these people did them no justice, I searched for alternatives in English. Squatter community? Legally, that is what they have always been until now, with the absence of formal land title. But most of them did pay for their land, and they have been building permanent lives here for many years. They are not squatting, they are living, staying. The thesaurus provides me a few alternatives to slum- ghetto, shantytown, skid row, shacktown. None of these fit in the least. Nong Waeng is a neighborhood, a community. It is a home.

Frustrated with the biases of my own language, I began to wonder if Thai could more accurately describe the reality of Nong Waeng. The word we learned to refer to a slum is chumchon eyahd, which literally means “crowded community”. This word came into usage about 15 years ago to replace salum, the Thai pronunciation of the English slum. As in English, salum has negative connotations of filth, vice, and destitution. Organizers, the governement, and communities have attempted to escape some of these stigmas by using chumchon eyahd instead, but many of the negative connotations of salum persist.

Interestingly enough, many of the residents use a different word to refer to their home. Often, they call it moo bahn, meaning village. They are chow bahn, villagers. This struck me hard, as I realized that this simple application of language explains volumes about the rural-to-urban connections we have been learning about. The older generations of Nong Waeng came from rural places. Their identity is deeply rooted in being villagers, and the place they live, though urban in many ways, is still a village. And with that word, moo bahn, comes the deeply rooted culture of Thai villages- communal eating, communal childcare, communal watching out for each other, communal life. This is what I experienced in Nong Waeng- a moo bahn, not a slum.

These ponderings leave me with no conclusions, only a profound sense that language has an incredible ability to impact the way we see the world. I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to turn preconceptions on their head. I also wonder, however, if it’s always necessary to find the perfect word to describe something- can we take the language we have and transform its meaning? Can the people who are assigned a label take ownership of that word and mold it to their own purposes? Can the word slum come to mean something different?

Emily Hanson
Macalester College

23 March 2010

Styrofoam Boat, Infernal Mountain

At school, my 11 roommates and I love to get food delivered to us. We’ve had a long day of lectures, just worked out, there’s a game on the 60’ flat screen––we’re too tired to go make food for ourselves. Besides, why should we? We deserve a little service. So we place an order, lean back, and 20 minutes later receive our double cheeseburgers with chili cheese fries. It’s like Christmas: the goods are separately wrapped in aluminum sheets, locked in Styrofoam containers, and then, together, wrapped again in two plastic bags. In a separate bag are bags of ketchup, plastic tubs of honey mustard, plastic cutlery, napkins, and a stack of menus we always say we will keep, but always end up throwing out. Ingestion takes no more than five minutes. We toss our mess of condiment-splattered packaging in the garbage can and POOF it vanishes as readily as it was delivered. (Of course, there is the weekly argument over which of us will take the time to tie the optimized heavy-duty plastic bag straps in a knot and lug it outside for the invisible magicians to make officially disappear.)

But, as with every magic trick, this one depends on deception. The rabbit in the hat doesn’t literally vanish into thin air. It gets sent somewhere to rot. Most often to a landfill in some walled off corner of elsewhere, itself a vanishing act. Last week I found one such landfill and spent two days picking through massifs of what was very likely my own filth, or might as well have been. 90-foot mountains of used, discarded, and forgotten items––Red Bull cans, fish sauce bottles, warped Gerber Baby faces, hypodermic needles, last night’s to-go box, all the vibrant colors that once shouted out your name in the supermarket, commanded your need, now collaged on a range in the sky and pasted together by your putrefying food scraps, like a fantasy of Pop art. But it’s real. And that’s only what’s above the ground. There are 60 feet more of capitalistic wasteland buried in the planet beneath your feet. 40 years of garbage, itself now growing its own nature. When there is a fire, which is inevitable with all the methane gas swarming around the already steaming heaps, the firemen can’t put it out, if ever they try. And people live here, breathing in the throat-searing smog of my vanished take-out. These scavengers (sic) make their livelihood mining our trash to extract our recyclables.

Last week, I set my pitchfork with theirs with the hope of understanding their courage and strength. But instead I felt like the damned, condemned to a secular hell, which I had ignorantly helped create in my consumer paradise. Though I lived and worked with them, I continued to be alienated from the villagers; they had managed such dignity in their work, and all I offered was a pathetic attempt to assuage my guilt. I picked garbage with a vengeance, as if by collecting the most water bottles I could simultaneously repent for a lifetime’s waste, impress the villagers with my work ethic, and legitimately help them. But my best intentions translated into me interrupting their work to ask if this bag or that bottle could be reused. I only knew how to throw out. I have spent more money on coffee today than I helped them make last week. And yet I am thankful. I could not help nor repent, but through this hellish journey, led by my Thai Virgil, I have discovered the urgency of reforming my decadent lifestyle.

Cyril Bennouna
University of Michigan

10 March 2010

The Illusion of Choices

In American society, we value a multitude of choices because choices mean freedom. When we’re faced with two choices, any normal Joe would choose the one that makes them happier. Yes, there is a certain anxiety we feel when we’re presented with too many decisions like where to eat, what career to take, what song to listen to and all the other choices we make on a daily basis. But choices are often indicators of development. For example, if you have more choices to a career, your economy is healthy. If you can choose to buy a tropical fruit in the still of Vermont’s winter, trade is active and the power of your dollar goes far. Being able to choose between 40 varieties of cereals gives us the power to design our diets. However, in a capitalist society, have we come to appreciate the quantity of choices more than the quality? I especially want to explore this question in terms of our everyday consumer related decisions.

The ironic side behind the millions of consumer choices we make is that they all trickle down from a few producers. In a time of a growing organic movement and an increasing amount of organic products, we think that our money is finally going to companies outside of General Mills, Johnson & Johnson and Pepsi but they are also slowly shifting into the hands of these giants.

Large scale corporations are catching onto the organic craze. In her exposure of these corporations, Andrea Whitfill observes, “Organic farming began as a grassroots movement to produce food that was healthier and better for the land. But it is now a huge, $20 billion industry, increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies.” Tom’s of Maine belongs to Colgate. Kashi is now owned by Kellogg’s. Pepsi bought Naked Juice in 2006 for $450 million. Burt’s Bees was bought by Clorox; the formula has remained the same yet the profits still go to Clorox. Horizon Organic milk was bought out by Dean Foods Co., the largest dairy company in the U.S. Coca Cola owns Glaceau. Glaceau in turn, is the maker of Vitamin Water, Fruit Water, Smart Water and Vitamin Energy. Kraft Foods bought the natural cereal maker Back to Nature. Kraft, by the way is a subsidiary of Altria, which also owns Philip Morris USA, one of the world’s largest producers of cigarettes. What do cigarettes and cereal have in common?

On the labels of these packages, it is rare that a consumer can find the names of these companies. It is because they don’t want their organic consumers knowing that their favorite brands are being handed over to the very companies they don’t want to buy from. Once these small organic and natural companies fall into the hands of huge businesses, it is hard for them to remain sustainable. David Korten, in his book, When Corporations Rule the World, explained how sustainable business "should be human scale -- not necessarily tiny firms, but preferably not more than 500 people -- always with a bias to smaller is better." These corporations will market and sell to organic buyers the most they can. Mass production, however does not give much room for sustainability. Big companies are not only taking over the organic movement, which was fueled by people and morals who were against them, but they also play a tremendous role in government lobbying.

In Thailand, there are similar giants. The company CP is the Thai equivalent of Purdue, using Tyson style production techniques. What is scarier about CP is that they also run a seed modifying company and have businesses in cable television, internet service and convenience store super chain, 7-Eleven. The organic movement hasn’t hit Thailand yet, but CP is similar to these companies in that they can make a moral or a value into a commodity. CP has managed to make Thai food culture into a commodity, turning agriculture into a huge agribusiness and marginalizing farmers.

In a meeting on protecting the livelihoods of Thai farmers, P’Thoy explains, “Capitalism is complex because huge companies have hidden themselves under many layers and names.” We believe we have many choices because companies just want us to buy more. There is a constant feedback loop between producers and consumers, where producers respond to the needs and wants of consumers and consumers show their (dis)approval by pulling out their wallets. But producers have brainwashed consumers with methods such as marketing, lobbying, skewed research and grandiose claims. These methods have created a loophole in the feedback loop; producers are beginning to make our choices for us. We are spoon-fed choices and don’t think much of them. Instead, we just exchange our dollars, thinking that we deserve this after a hard day’s work. Beyond diet or not, chocolate or vanilla, total care or whitening, consumers need to understand further what they are choosing. Through a raised consciousness, we can reclaim our right to quality choices and our values. That is a better version of freedom.

Amy Saekow
Middlebury College

Will we meet again?

The moment I stepped back into my KKU dorm room, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t want to check my computer’s overflowing inbox, I didn’t want to see whom I could potentially catch up with on Skype, and I cringed at the thought of Facebook. I wasn’t ready to come back into the technological world yet. I looked at my bed not longingly, but rather with a yearning for the mosquito-net enclosed mat that I had finally come to find comfortable. I felt claustrophobic in my small dorm; the clutter of books, clothes, beds, desks etc. contrasted immensely with the spacious yet peaceful, near empty rooms of my host family’s home. I finally picked up my phone to call my parents, reassuring them I was home safe. I knew they would ask how my homestay went. “It was good,” was the only response I could come up with, though ‘good’ is quite possibly the worst adjective I could have used to describe my recent experience with the Yasothon farming community. My mind, however, was too busy to process any greater description.

After hanging up, I decided to sort out my feelings by expressing them through a much more detailed email to my family. I sat on my stiff-backed desk chair, missing my much-practiced cross-legged position atop the handmade sitting mats, and reintroduced myself to fast-paced technology, which I had had a reprieve from in the past week. Hungry for dinner, but too overwhelmed to search for unprocessed and organic food, I began to type while trying to push out the cravings for my Mae’s farm fresh sticky rice and stir-fried vegetables.

I had just finished my first unit of the semester on food and agriculture and my brain was clogged with new theories, practiced realities, and reaffirmed beliefs. I had come into this unit with a relatively solid academic and theoretical background on food systems and organic farming practices in the U.S., but within this unit, I was challenged with the reality of chemical and organic farming practices in the Thai context which opened up my mind to a whole new web of questions and possibilities for agriculture worldwide.

I had spent only three days in Yasothon with the Nieulai family, and I was ready to settle in with them in their humble home. My Pa was one of three wise-men of the village. After switching back to organic farming ten years ago, he saw his previous debt from chemical farming decrease and witnessed his land, now in synch with nature, come back to life. He proudly sells his rice, yard long beans, and tomatoes at the two-year old organic Green Market supported by the Alternative Agriculture Network of Thailand. The organization is currently working on creating awareness of organic farming, offering training sessions and support to farmers who make the change. The market itself has become a medium through which farmers can share farming practices, create friendships, and educate consumers and other farmers on the benefits of organic farming.

One thing that continues to baffle me about the agricultural and social systems of Thailand is the fact that farmers are not considered part of the formal labor sector. I can’t fathom how the government and society do not give the credit, support, or respect to the people who provide life’s basic necessity. Policy and ignorance have perpetuated the cycle of exploitation and repression for farmers, but those in the organic movement are fighting back. In a small exchange with my Pa and the two other wise-men, he noted how proud he was of his farm and of his community. He lives simply, but is very happy with his life and the self-sufficiency of his family and neighbors. The community works together as a family, helping each other on their farms, sharing meals, and bagging rice to sell at the market, all done with overarching love and respect for the land and one another.

The villagers in this farm community admire the vitality of their self-sustainability. Everyday, they use the skills of farming, cooking, sewing, and building, skills long forgotten in the convenience store/megamall-laden cities that crave technology and fast-food. The Yasothon farmers maintain a sense of reverence for the earth and for one another that the massive agricultural corporations have chosen to ignore. It is my hope that with the rising organic movement, small scale farming communities can reclaim their land, their livelihood, and their dignity and can be fully recognized as the vital labor sector that they are.

As I sat back into my chair, sorting through all these thoughts, I realized I missed the love and sense of community I had felt even with only a meager three days in the village. I thought back to my Pa, his face always on the verge of relinquishing a smile, but never giving away too much. “If the world is round, we will meet again,” my Pa had said with a knowing grin. It was this send off that made me sure I would come back, and once again feel the connectedness of a community working hard to nourish themselves and one another while maintaining peace with the earth.

Caitlin Goss
Occidental College

Small Changes

During my homestay with Mae Pathom Tanakhoon in Yasothon Province I began to develop an appreciation and some jealousy of Mae’s self-sufficient life. During the first couple days I noticed that she did not go to the market to get eggs or meat, rather she would go into her garden each morning and pick fresh vegetables to eat at each meal. I was in disbelief. I have never known anyone who does not buy food regularly and began wondering if this was a way of life I could accomplish. If I am not a farmer can I still live self-sufficiently? How can I be the best consumer possible? What are my practices at home and what knowledge can I bring home to change these practices? These, among many other questions were bouncing around my head all week and I began to feel hopeless. I would go from convincing myself that not all was lost, to thinking, “how could it be possible to live a self-sufficient life if I do not grow all my own food?”

Mae expressed her love of self-sufficiency to me on day two of my homestay saying, “If someone has land, why not grow their own food?” At the time this question seemed hard to answer and being a trained American consumer I immediately began thinking of justifications; some people do not have enough time, planting a garden requires too much work/maintenance, not everyone knows how to grow etc. These were all valid reasons for a mere five seconds and then they were just lazy excuses. But to Mae this was a rhetorical question. In her mind there was no reason why open land should not be dedicated to growing fruits, herbs and vegetables.

Finally, after ten days of feeling guilty about my current lifestyle and passionate about changing my tendencies, I came to both a realization and a solution. I realized that when talking about self-sufficiency and changing consumer patterns nationally or worldwide one has to be realistic. As ideal as it would be, not everyone is going to grow everything they eat and not everyone prefers vegetables or has access to organic food. However, educating people about where their food comes from and what they can do is the primary step we can take.

The solution is not to force oneself to be a farmer, but to find a balance. I arrived at the balance of growing some of my own vegetables and fruit, buy local/organic when available and eating processed food in moderation. Living in Rhode Island, an area that has hot summers and harsh winters, would still allow me to grow vegetables and fruit for at least half the year (with help from Mum and Dad). Fortunately, there are plenty of small-scale organic farms within twenty-five miles of my house with affordable prices that grow the vegetables I cannot grow at home. Finally, in regards to eating processed food, it is not going to kill me…yet. One of my favorite summer meals is a cheeseburger hot off the grill and as much as I do not agree with killing animals for human consumption I do not foresee myself giving up a cheeseburger anytime soon. In a way, just feeling guilty every time I take a bite of that burger is awareness and change in itself.

The answer is not for everyone to drastically change their eating habits or consuming patterns, but to make small daily changes that have long-term affects. According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads. See how easy it is to make a difference?

Claire Coddington
Occidental College

Fish, Rum and a Side of Oppression

“It is calmest in the eye of the storm. There, you will not see the vast and ever growing chaos of the storm but rather the tranquility of being at its center.” - P’Ubon

The smell of fish and rum fermented in the blistering heat. It was nearly 11am and the last bucket of fish was being pulled from the river to be weighed, transferred to a tank and driven to the market. Having started at 8pm the night before, the community of fish farmers were stumbling around on their last wisps of sanity. Their veins pumping with a mix of rum, rice wine and Red Bull to maintain their energy and make the all night process of harvesting the fish bearable. Drunken laughter and cheering filed the air as the farang attempted to help the fish farmers who were using a pulley to lift the last bucket of fish out of the water and up the steep hill to the scales and truck waiting at the top. When asked how much profit they were going to make from their harvest, the fish farmers just laughed. “We will find out at the market,” explained one farmer. “Most of the money we make from fishing is needed to pay off our loans. Becoming a CP fish farmer is very expensive. We will make enough to get by.” The largest meat production company in Asia, CP owns the means of production in this community as the fish farmers must pay CP for the fish food, bio-engineered fish, chemicals, nets, and incubation containers. What appears to be a day of traditional fish harvesting in a rural Thai community is actually the end of a multi-million dollar mechanized system that works to control the means of production, worker and final goods created in the fish farming process. With every fish slung into the truck bed, the reality of fish farming in Thailand came into focus. I was witnessing the harsh chaos of the storm.

I was fortunate to have been able to see this process unfold. Day to day, the river is lined with fishing nets and littered with fishermen in what appears to be a Thai community using traditional methods to farm fish. Far from the truth, large transnational corporations control much of the fish farming in Thailand as well as the agricultural production. Nearly 80% of the seeds used in Thailand today have been purchased from CP and Monsanto. For many Thai communities the control that CP and Monsanto have over the food production in the country is not apparent as they use contract farming to force farmers to buy seeds from them every season and take loans out to pay for inputs needed in industrial farming like pesticides or equipment. This has caused many farmers to go into debt as their livelihood is no longer in their own hands but those of transnational corporations. Before coming to these farming communities in northeast Thailand, I, like many Americans, was unaware of the control American companies like Monsanto and transnational companies like CP had on farmers in Thailand. But upon talking with these Thai farmers, I discovered that many Thai communities are also unaware of this reality. Together, both American and Thai consumers were blindly supporting these transnational corporations and furthering the exploitation of these Thai farmers with every purchase we made. It would appear that CP and Monsanto have been able to manipulate who is in the eye of storm. Shifting the burden of consumerism to those that are limited in their capacity to fight back, these corporations are able to continue to disillusion populations in both Thailand and in the United States.

Kayla Nolan
Occidental College

The Buffalo

Last week, I spent three days living in Yasothon Province living on a farm with a family and another CIEE student. My family consisted of my host Meh (Mother), Pa (Father), a very yippy dog, and a buffalo.

On the first morning of the homestay, I awoke at six to find that my host parents were already up and about. My Meh had already been out working in the garden and had started making breakfast; it had rained the night before, so my Pa had started out early to plow the fields with the buffalo. Having never seen an actual buffalo before, I was quite surprised to start my morning with one. The buffalo, however, seemed quite unfazed by my presence. In fact, the buffalo seemed quite unfazed by everything going on around him; we walked through the fields, and didn’t seem to mind much when he was stopped to turn, or encouraged to keep going.

After watching the buffalo a bit, we headed out to spend the rest of the day viewing the farms. We encountered some more CIEE students living nearby, and after spending the hot morning walking around in the sun, we all thought it would be great to find a place to go swimming. After multiple attempts asking our hosts where we could swim, the six of us were lead away by my host Meh towards a swimming spot. We headed back towards the house, and my Meh indicated that the small pond behind our house would be a good place to swim. We all got ourselves ready to swim, and returned to find the buffalo looking up at us, up to his neck in water, in our pond. Based on the communication with my Meh, we understood that the buffalo was swimming in that pond, and we could find another pond if we wanted to swim.

After our swim, we all returned to our respective homes. I spent the afternoon lounging around in the shade, reading and napping in the pleasant afternoon heat. The buffalo did the same. He sat next to his tree all afternoon, and occasionally wandered around to find some grass to nibble on. For the rest of the homestay, the buffalo stayed by that tree. He was there in the morning as we were preparing breakfast, and he was there in the evening as we hunted for the bathroom in the dark. Though he never acknowledged my presence, I felt comforted knowing he was there.

Upon returning to Khon Kaen, I was puzzled that this buffalo was still on my mind. The buffalo was cool, and I didn’t feel like I really needed to dwell on him. Upon thinking it through, I realized that this buffalo was much more than he appeared. The buffalo plowed the fields with the family, he lived with the family, he swam with the family, the family used his manure in their compost. There was no separation between the buffalo’s domain and the domain of the family. They lived together. This together-ness was something I had never seen; as an animal I had never had any previous experience with, I couldn’t imagine a buffalo playing an integral part in the household.

My host family lived with the land; they grew all the food they ate, they made their own compost, they barely used electricity or gas, and they lived with this buffalo. The buffalo, to me, came to represent the reciprocal relationship between my host family and the environment around them, a relationship I deeply respect and hope to one day emulate.

Maggie Pearson
Macalester College

Farmers

We tend to picture a farmer as nothing more than somebody sporting a set of overalls who is surrounded by a group of fat, muddy, pigs. Farmers may wear overalls, and some do raise pigs, but their role in society is far more important than we have been led to believe. Farmers are like doctors- it is up to them to ensure the health of the ground we walk on. They must produce all the nutrients that enters our mouths, pass through our digestive systems, and sustain existence on this planet. This is a profession that requires the life-long collection of knowledge. BUT, like Rodney Dangerfield says, these days farmers “Get no respect!” In both Mexico and Thailand farmers are being evicted from their land, finding themselves in a strange new ecosystem- the city or someplace abroad.

Because farmers cannot compete with the dirt cheap prices of industrial agro-businesses and because they go into debt buying the chemical inputs necessary to produce the cash crops that our society demands, our former caretakers must surrender their soil. The soil, which was the nesting bed for the corn, which was the tortilla, the blood, the identity of Mexico, has been commandeered by an army of genetically modified seeds belonging to chemical producer turned agricultural giant, Monsanto. Where have the farmers gone? According to the documentary, Food Inc., over one million Mexican farmers now work in America, some on industrial farms or slaughterhouses under inhumane conditions and under the constant fear of deportation. In Thailand, mangos, bananas, and indigenous rice are being replaced by sugar cane, para rubber, and jasmine 105.

It is not just the knowledge of how to grow real food that is disappearing, but also another ability necessary for living. In an informal meeting with three gentlemen from an organization called “The Wisemen,” I learned about how to walk the middle way. The aging farmers said that they were content, and their effortless smiles reflected this disposition. In all seriousness, being happy where you’re at is an ability that seems to be increasingly rare. They had reached this state by seeking a balance between family and work and between the extreme ends of desire (ascetic and consumer)- simple but requires practice. Calling themselves “local capitalists,” their assets came in the form of community support, health, and reasonable profit. As Wisemen, they were responsible for disseminating local knowledge to maintain the environment, fortify the community, and incorporate fellow farmers from other villages into their network. The first pupils to receive this wisdom were their children.

As urban migration becomes the norm, both out of necessity and desire, the youth are leaving rural areas, creating family separation and weaker communities. The picture is not black and white, as some continue to cultivate land while pursuing urban labor. But, this trend begs the question: how many of us want to stay in our small towns? Well, what if there is something sweet going on their like a land reclamation project? I wonder, why might such a project be more enticing to an American studying globalization abroad, then to the average young Thai. Perhaps there is an important lesson to be learned about globalization being a means to explore the world, fulfill young rushes, and of course improve one’s condition in society. At the same time, globalization is simply a force indoctrinating young minds with these dreams which are usually more glorious as dreams, and I wonder if wise parents have the right to indoctrinate their children as well. Maybe village/ campesino1 leaders could open their own schools and educate the next generation about the value of the farmer- in a way equally enticing to the allure of the city and cheap, processed food. Thus far, parents have not been able to evolve to the point of reaching common ground with us- has there ever been a family without teenage rebellion? Even if parents do not learn, the youth, like the farmers may want to come back home… we always do.


1. One who lives in the campos of Mexico, areas heavily dependent on native corn and similar in some ways to rural villages in Thailand.

Abe Levine
Macalester College